All the talk of social justice in our culture has me thinking about the nature of injustice. What is injustice? How do we define the greatest injustice versus a lesser injustice. Stuff like that. Is this nerdy?
I looked up the dictionary definition of injustice. The definitions are not very helpful. They say things like, “That which violates justice or fairness. Or, “That which violates the rights of another person.” The first definition does not define anything. It is really just a restatement of the word. The second definition may be more helpful. I wonder, though, if this is a definition derived from a particular cultural perspective. Would a less individualistic, more family or community oriented culture define injustice this way? Why is injustice in this definition centered upon individual personhood?
I would like to offer a different definition. Injustice is the violation of that which is good. The greater the good that is violated, the more grievous the injustice. By “good,” I mean that which is inherently good apart from any preferential judgment. I know relativists won’t like this definition, but so be it. There are things which are good whether or not they are recognized as such. Life is good. Societal order is good.
Cultures develop their own priorities of goodness. In the current American culture, we esteem individual personhood as, if not the greatest good, then certainly close to it. I think this is the reason for the second dictionary definition of injustice. Since we value individualism so highly, anything done to diminish the individual must be a great injustice. This individualistic priority also underlies much of the activism taking place in opposition to injustice in our world today. If individual humanity is among the greatest goods, then slavery, oppression, and poverty are among the worlds greatest evils.
While I am in whole-hearted agreement with the pursuit of justice in our world, I believe there is a better foundation for its pursuit than the goodness of human individuals. I stand on the position that there is a God. He is a God of justice. He hates injustice and oppression, but not primarily because of His esteem for human individuals. He does love humanity. This is just not the foundation of His hatred of injustice. There is a greater good violated by injustice.
Many people struggle with the idea of a good and loving God when they read the Old Testament. There are accounts of Israel, at the direction and command of God, wiping out whole peoples: men, women, and children. How can this God claim to hate injustice?
If injustice is the violation of that which is good, then we must consider, what is the highest of all goods? If humanity is the highest of all goods, then God is guilty of injustice in His commands to Israel concerning these foreign nations. However, if there is a greater good than humanity, then we must consider this before condemning God.
God, by definition, must necessarily be the highest good, otherwise that which is of greater good would be God. If God is the highest good, then that which violates His essence, character, and goodness is the greatest injustice. And if God is infinitely good, then that which violates His infinite goodness is injustice of infinite magnitude. An injustice of infinite magnitude is worthy of infinite punishment. The peoples which Israel was commanded to destroy were guilty of hundreds of years of this kind of infinite injustice. It would be a greater injustice for God to allow His own goodness to be violated indefinitely.
How does this serve as foundation for my concern for social justice? Because life is an essential element of God’s goodness. He is the source and sustainer of all life. When one person or a government thinks so little of life so as to enslave, or sell, or oppress people who have been given life by God, this is a violation of the goodness of God and is therefore the most grievous of injustices.
Christians love people, not because of any inherent goodness in humanity, but because God loves humanity despite our lack of goodness. This is also elemental in God’s goodness. We have recognized our own unworthiness of God’s affection, yet are the beneficiaries of His affections. In fact, Jesus suffered the greatest of injustices in being sentenced to death in a kangaroo court and executed. He suffered injustice as a demonstration of His love for unjust people who violate His goodness.